Bordering Russia to the east, Norway in the north and Sweden in the west, a large part of Finland lies above the Arctic Circle, but even the southern half of this tiny country gets a thick dusting of snow in winter. Despite having only a few daylight hours in winter, plenty of cosy cafés, restaurants, hotels and a plethora of well-lit outdoor activities on offer mean that winter is the perfect time to visit this bite-sized country, the official home of Father Christmas.
On Finland’s south-eastern tip, Helsinki, with its stylish architecture and chic boutiques, Siberian cafés and Baltic seascape, was voted World Design Capital for 2012 and it’s worth spending several days in the country’s delightful capital. To understand why Helsinki got its Design Capital title, head for the Design District, a crowded warren of designer boutiques, trendy clothes shops, art galleries and restaurants clustered around the beautiful red brick façade Museum of Finnish Architecture and Design.
After a wander around the large museum, which showcases the work of the country’s newest creators, take a number 24 bus to Seurasaari. During the festive season, it becomes an amazing open-air heritage museum in the suburbs, where dozens of 18th- and 19th-century wooden houses, including windmills, food stores and farm buildings, are brought from all over Finland and set up amongst dense pine forest. It becomes a winter wonderland where you can take part in activities based on Finnish Christmas traditions.
Spend the evening at Juur, a farmhouse-style restaurant serving bite-sized dishes of homemade beef sausage in mustard, smoked trout soup and other sapas (the Finnish version of Spanish tapas), as well as main dishes like succulent fried perch served with a creamy rhubarb butter sauce and Finnish yogurt pana cotta drizzled with a thick buckthorn berry sauce. Then tuck in for the night at Hotel Fabian, a delightfully friendly boutique hotel close to all the sights.
If you plan to spend several days in Helsinki, take the exciting trip across the bay in an ice dredger boat to Suomenlinna a vast Unesco World Heritage Site. The 18th-century fortress, enclosing six small islands, is now home to a fascinating collection of museums, cafés and shops.
The National Museum of Finland, which houses a treasure trove of gold coins and other intriguing Finnish artefacts dating from prehistory to the present day, is a great place to spend an afternoon when it’s snowing outside, and kids love Sea Life Helsinki, with its sharks, piranhas and jellyfish. End your stay on a true Nordic note by hiring skates and take a wobbly whirl around the ice rink at Rautatientori Square.
Land of a thousand lakes
A few hours north of Helsinki, the town of Tampere, located on the banks of the Tammerkoski River, is the eponymous capital of the Tampere region, better known to Finns as the ‘land of a thousand lakes’. Home of the rare Kyytto forest cow, wild reindeer, hundreds of edible berries and fish-packed lakes, the Tampere region also boasts a wide variety of gastronomic specialities.
Head for Hämeenkyrö, a lovely region of pastures, snow-covered pine trees and cosy log cabins to visit Frantsila, a pioneering organic herb farm, which produces some of Finland’s top natural health products, where you can also stop for coffee and homemade blueberry pie and stock up on herbal shampoos and skincare products. From here a tree-lined road, studded with signs warning to watch out for wild moose, leads to Herkkujuustola, a typical Finnish chalet farmhouse in the middle of the woods, where you can sample award-winning artisanal cheeses.
The Vehoniemi Automotive Museum, with its exhibits of vintage Finnish motorcars ranging from an 1921 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost, to a gleaming 1928 fire engine, is a short drive away. Stop off in the museum’s café for a traditional snack of sweet mashed potato and lingonberry Ronttonen pastries, then spend the night at The Yellow House, a vintage-style bed and breakfast with a shop selling pretty Christmas gifts, in the tiny hamlet of Pälkäne, next door.
The chilly Finnish climate is ideal for a wide variety of berries, ranging from juicy, plum-coloured bog whortleberries, to bright orange sweet and sour cloud berries, which are used to make a range of juices, jams and jellies. After sampling bitter lingonberry jelly and syrupy cloudberry jam in the shop of the century-old, alpine-style farm of Ronnvik, head for Villa Hepolahti. This luxurious villa with wall-to-wall windows overlooks Lake Pintele in the tiny hamlet of Laitikkala and makes an ideal base for sampling some of the region’s winter activities.
Hit the slopes
Ride out on sturdy Icelandic horses to explore the surrounding snow-covered forests of Scots pine and Norway spruce that are home to brown bear, reindeer and moose, enjoy cross country skiing or sledging along well-marked trails near the villa, or head further afield to Sappee, a 30-minute drive away, where you’ll find excellent downhill skiing. In the evenings return to Hepolhati for delicious meals made with local produce, then sit near a crackling log fire and be serenaded by Heikki, the villa’s jovial owner singing Finnish folk songs accompanied by his acoustic guitar.
From Hepolahti it’s an easy drive through twilight-lit forests ringing with the calls of wild animals, to Peltola. In this log-cabin-style Finnish farmhouse complete with rocking chairs and roaring fires, you can join Finns as they sweat in a traditional smoke sauna, then - if you’re brave enough - dive into the icy waters of Lake Ajosjärvi. Finish your trip at Ravintola Näsinneula. Built in the 1970’s by Pekka Koski, the architect who designed many of Tampere’s signature buildings,this 124-metre tall revolving tower was recently voted one of the world’s top ten revolving restaurants by CNN.
Näsinneula’s chef uses traditional Finnish ingredients to create a menu that showcases some of the country’s best dishes, so you can sit back and enjoy sapid grilled salmon and asparagus risotto, succulent white chocolate pudding dotted with sea buckthorn berries, and other Finnish delights, while watching the lake-mirrored landscapes of Tampere revolve at your feet. Finland is truly a remarkable winter destination with plenty of cosy cafés, cultural hot spots and outdoor activities to satisfy the entire family.
How to get there
KLM Royal Dutch Airlines (www.klm.com) have daily flights via Paris to Helsinki or Rovaniemi for around Dh3,300 return (flight time: 11-13 hours).
Best time to go
Winter, when crisp snow is on the ground and there are plenty of festive activities on offer, is a wonderful time to visit Finland, although there are only a few daylight hours at this time of year. If you prefer to visit when the days are longer, come in summer when temperature is around 20˚C and the sun sets for just a few hours.
Given Finland’s snowy roads in winter, it’s best to hire an off-road vehicle from a company like Rhino Car Hire (www.rhinocarhire.com), which is better adapted to the weather and terrain.